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Where'd the term "Xmas" come from? Surprise -- the Church!

12:38 PM, Dec 24, 2010   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -- Who comes up with a phrase like "Xmas"? Believe it or not, the Church did -- hundreds of years ago. And scholars and pastors say it was not about taking "Christ" out of Christmas.

When Pastor Jim Harnish gets a card with "Merry Xmas" on it -- he's not offended.  He is curious, though.

"I sort of wonder, now, did the person who used that realize that it had a history and it has a meaning?" he asked, pointing out that the "X" in "Xmas" isn't an "X" at all.

It's the Greek letter "Chi" -- the same one that shows up in Pastor Harnish's sanctuary at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.

"Here we are, right on the front of the pulpit," he said, pointing to the cloth that hangs directly in front of the podium.  The ivory-white cloth is embroidered with a familiar gold symbol that looks like an "X" laid across an extra-tall "P".  "On the altar cloth is this ancient symbol of the 'Chi-Rho' -- the first two letters of the Greek word 'Christ.' And it, over time, became a classic symbol of the faith."

You see "Xmas" mainly on signs and cards today, but it was a common, accepted abbreviation for centuries.  It shows up in an ad from Ladies Home Journal in 1922, and on the cover of a magazine from London in 1903.

The Reverend Harnish says using "Chi" as a symbol for "Christ" goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.  "The story had to be told through symbol, through sign, through images," he said.

Most medieval Christians couldn't read -- and couldn't even get access to a Bible.  "So the only way that masses of people could understand what Christianity believed or affirmed was to see, experience -- feel it, even -- through symbol," he explained. 

Pastor Harnish says he prefers spelling out Christmas, since we speak English, not Greek.  But for him, holding onto these ancient symbols is a link between his parish and the Christians who've come before.

"I'm sure that most folks, when they come to worship, and they see this symbol... it's just Greek to them," he said with a chuckle.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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